dancing with architecture: Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France

"I hand you this chapel of loyal concrete..."

When the Poor Clares needed a new chapel, they reached out to Le Corbusier. Bombing during World War II destroyed the pre-existing chapel, so the nuns needed a new space to worship. Leadership in the Church saw opportunity in the ruins of the war by hiring contemporary architects and artists to rebuild with works of art to lure the unconverted. When criticized for hiring agnostics, Father Couturier replied that "...we feel it safer to call on geniuses with no faith than believers with no talent."

Corbusier initially declined the offer, not wanting to design for a "dead institution". The church pressed Corbu until he finally agreed to visit Ronchamp. In Corbu's mind, the church might have been dead, but the site was alive. He notied that the hill offered "totally unrestricted architecture"and that "[a] respectable dignitary was present, howeverthe landscape, the four horizons. They were in command. The true phenomenon of visual acoustics." After five years of design and two years of construction, the chapel opened in the summer of 1954.

Made of concrete and stone, the chapel captured the femininity of the nuns, of the horizons, of the Virgin Mary, and his mother ("...when I was faced with these four horizons I couldn't resist...and I thought of my mother, a woman of courage and faith.") The bulbous roof was also influenced by a crabshell he scavanged off a Long Island beach.

Corbu wanted to create an "architectural stroll", a building that provides a visual feast as you walk around and about it. The front provides the dramatic facade and primary entrance, another side provides space for an abstract outdoor cathedral for 10,000, one backside sports a dam-inspired roof drainage into an underground cistern, and the other backside provides rear entrances and a cubist array of deepset windows. Inside, there's a main chapel with two intimate side chapels. The walls and floors integrate stone from the previous chapel.

When the building was revealed, the architectural community was aghast at the chapel's lack of linearity and its proud sculptural stance. Had Corbu abandoned the International Style? Not really. He understood that a church on a hill that sought to inspire the unsaved needed something more than white boxes and linear windows. Instead, Corbu provided white curves with under his free facades penetrated by seemingly random windows with the entire structure anchored with silos of indirect light. He expanded his oeuvre by building on his previous foundation and rearranging the stones into new forms. As a result, he took his vision to new, ecclesiastical heights.


Also onsite are the Corbu-designed Pilgrim's Shelter and Chaplain's House and Jean Prouve's Bell Tower built in 1975 featuring three bells, two from the previous church and one cast for the occasion. Needing to better host the 80,000 annual visitors and move the convent to the hill, the church hired Renzo Piano to design a monastery and visitors center. Piano, a master of designing sympathetic additions to existing masterworks, produced a tasteful and unintrusive design that many, including Richard Meier, opposed. Undeterred, the church built it anyway. We thought it was nicely done and immensely respectful of Corbusier's work.

if you go

Hours and dates

When we visited, we had no idea if the place was open or not. As it turns out, the website is a bit confusing. The chapel is still an active place of pilgrimage and worship, so the hours most prominent on the webpage are directed to pilgrims. For the architectural tourist, the grounds are open 10 am to 5 pm (but check!). After you buy a ticket, you are free to wander the grounds and enter the church. Guided tours are available. We'd recommend you check their calendar in case there are special events. We were fortunate to be there during a prayer call where the nuns collected at the church for a series of chants: absolutely magical to hear the acoustic quality of the space. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the interior of the chapel.


stone from the destroyed chapel is evident in the construction photos

the concrete roof is topped with sealed aluminum

the chapel from Ronchamp

A Poor Clare called to service. The wooden fence is for planned work on the facade.

The other side of the chapel with the outdoor cathedral

a Corbusier-designed monument, the Peace Pyramid, to the dead of World War II

the water management side of the chapel

this catchment funnels water to an underground cistern

The backside with rear door and window penetrations. You can see all three light silos.

Prouve's bell tower

the pilgrim's shelter

peeking inside from the window

the cellars

the chaplain's house

renzo piano's monastery

heading to the monastery from the chapel

view from the chapel's direction toward the monastery

visitors center

site plan

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